A split path to a single unified truth

The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays - Hilary Putnam
October 24, 2003

In the modern - or at least pre-postmodern - world, facts are brute and unarguable. However discomforting a fact may be, it is a fact, irrespective of our feelings about it. If young women are in fact educationally more successful on average than young men, as examination score trends appear to indicate, then this is the case, whatever our egalitarian preferences would have us believe.

By contrast, matters of value are open to continuing dispute.

Whether liberty is to be prized over equality is an issue about which we accept a clash of opinions. At the heart of Hilary Putnam's latest book are three lectures given in Chicago in 2000 directed at overthrowing this fact-value dichotomy. This is hardly a novel undertaking, as the understated praise from Charles Taylor on the jacket perhaps signals.

Still, Putnam tackles the job in a detailed and considered way that is bound to be useful in the human sciences where these issues have the greatest impact on scholarly debate and on attitudes to policy-making.

Putnam's approach to the matter is to undermine the dichotomy without doing away with the distinction. In other words, though some claims are more factual than others in the accepted sense of "facts", factual claims typically have an evaluative element. Equally, claims about values are typically "entangled", as he puts it, with descriptive claims and - moreover -like factual claims, these other statements are "amenable to such terms as 'correct', 'incorrect', 'true', 'false', 'warranted' and 'unwarranted'".

The first lecture/chapter examines the empiricist origins of the fact-value dichotomy and begins to undermine the divide by starting on the factual side. He follows a familiar route to demonstrate that empiricist accounts of the purely factual nature of descriptive statements are ultimately untenable. Judgements in science and mathematics cannot avoid reliance on epistemic values such as the simplicity or beauty of a theory. Admittedly, simplicity is not yet an ethical value, but it is a value rather than a fact.

In the next lecture Putnam runs the argument the other way round, examining what it is that people argue about when they argue about ethical and political values. His case is rather more technical this time; he contends that the epistemic values that underlie science are not justified by their conformity to some external standard but in terms of "these very standards of justified empirical belief... If this is circular justification, it is still justification enough for most of us." We can debate those values and their interpretation, but only in the context of the values themselves and the overall enterprise they serve. And so it must also be with debates over ethical values.

The correctness of ethical values does not lie in their correspondence with an external standard (just in the way that epistemic values enjoy no correspondence), but this does not mean that one is reduced to treating ethical claims merely as emotive utterances. Like epistemic values they can be objective "without objects".

All this leaves Putnam in a fine position to pass an unfavourable judgement on the social sciences, most particularly neo-classical economics, in his concluding lecture. Mainstream economics, more brashly and in a sense more successfully than any other social science, has imposed on itself a rigid distinction between people's ends, which are seen as subjective preferences and thus extrinsic to the discipline, and the means people may use to attain them, which are rationally calculable and the essential business of economics. Putnam selects Amartya Sen's work on welfare economics as an example. He uses it to indicate that assessments of wellbeing are inevitably founded on ethical and political values, so a supposedly value-free welfare economics is simply self-deluded. Its very methodology covertly imposes values without acknowledging that there can be "reasoned moral argument" concerning the values underlying wellbeing.

Christopher Norris' collection of essays on Putnam relates only indirectly to the concerns addressed so far. His prime interest is the development of Putnam's philosophy of science. Loosely expressed, the original Putnam - "Putnam 1" -initially argued for a "strong causal-realist theory of meaning, reference and truth". In other words, he claimed the world was "largely mind and language-independent" but susceptible to ever more accurate understanding through the progress of science. However, "Putnam 2" relaxed this interpretation under the force of the "standard sceptical response which has always inexorably shadowed the realist case when it sought to explain how we could possibly know what by very definition lay beyond our utmost extent of knowledge".

We can never know if our knowledge is "really" correct since we can never see beyond it; we are stuck this side of the world. If one takes this limitation seriously, the grounds for the truthfulness of our beliefs can no longer be a causal link to the world; truth has to be understood as amounting to the best warranted assertions we can make. But, for Norris, this leads to the danger of unravelling who "we" are. If different groups or different cultures disagree about which assertion is better warranted, then the ideal of a single unified truth is lost. "Putnam 3" marks an attempt to find an accommodation between realist and anti-realist positions.

Norris is keen to save Putnam from his later selves. He argues repeatedly that Putnam could have availed himself of stronger arguments to defeat the anti-realists and that topics Putnam appeared to see as decisive in compelling his abandonment of causal realism -such as his interpretation of concerns over quantum reality -need not have come out that way.

However, it appears from his latest work on the fact-value dichotomy that Putman 3's position provides him with new grounds for figuring out the subtle continuities between facts and values. Norris' work leaves me less clear about the broader analytical dividends of reverting to Putnam 1.

Steven Yearley is professor of sociology, University of York.

The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays

Author - Hilary Putnam
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 190
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 674 00905 3

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